Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Annual National Finals of Murderwalk...

Like a fair number of the people I know, I do a fair amount of my Christmas shopping on-line. I find it soothes the fevered brow, allows me to browse at my leisure, and shop in the comfort of my own home - or, now I have a decent smartphone, almost anywhere I can get an internet connection.

Unless, of course, I'm physically out and about, playing at the Annual National Finals of Murderwalk, the extremely short-tempered game of physical prowess, hunting, and survival.

This is otherwise known to pretty-much the rest of society at large, as the "Annual Christmas Shopping Expedition".

This time, we played it in Newbury, as I'm visiting my better half (I have a week of leave from work before Insanity Incarnate Day, or as you lot call it, Christmas Eve shopping in the London area), and we wanted to avoid going into Reading, which would have been a right bleedin' saga, and no mistake (it's a modern and major county town town, where the sheer amount of traffic, and lack of effective and meaningful directional signs, is guaranteed to make me reach for a chain saw and do a Freddy Kruger in about five seconds flat).

So, we thought "Yeah, let's do Newbury this time. There are loads of shops, it's a regional market town, and besides, there's a half-decent market there on Saturdays too!" This, where the thinking was that we might actually pick up a bargain or two, and save some money on pressies for the assorted oddballs - Ahem. I mean relatives - that we both have.

Right off the bat, we realised that it wasn't going to be quite that easy. The pavements - such as there are in the countryside - were covered by an almost invisible coating of black ice, and here we were, with no skates. I could hear the strains of the song "Slip Sliding Away" in my head, as we managed to navigate our way to the main road. We eventually - somehow without going base over apex even once - travelled in by bus. Well, why not, I work on the buses in London, after all, and it saves on parking fees, and it's reasonably cheap, right? Actually, not that much. I forgot (heh, silly me, thinks I, beating my noggin on the table a little later on) that outside London, it's not a fixed flat rate fare, they still use those goofy blasted ascending fare charts, designed to empty ones pockets of the lower-value notes in one fell swoop if you go any distance further than say, two miles. Ouch already! went my pocket change, as it passed from my pocket, to the drivers' cash tray.

Anyhow, we got return fare tickets (we don't do those on London Buses. Odd, but true) on the assumption that we might very well be a tad out of pocket on the way back. It's happened before, and experience is a wonderful teacher.

Bull, and other nonsense. If experience was a wonderful teacher, we would have stayed back at my other half's place, playing tiddlywinks or something (I'm getting a sore throat from all this polite coughing, you know), like staying nice and warm and toasty, not freezing our... um... behinds... off, waiting for a bus that was delayed by Crimbo traffic the next village over (insert Robin Williams doing his helicopter over the Ho Chi Min Trail 'Jack-knifed water buffalo' gag from "Good Morning Vietnam").

Anyway, we got into the Newbury bus station in one piece, aided in no small part by some of the best driving that I've seen in a long time by the driver of the 'Newbury & District' bus (Good lord, they even have new buses in the Counties! I thought they got all of our old TfL hand-me-down crap out here?!), as the roads were more slippery than the stuff streaming from our noses. WOW, was it cold. Did I say that already?

Luckily, the local council had apparently gritted the roads and walking surfaces - I mean pavements - in Newbury, so getting around wasn't an experience of the ice-rink encounters variety.

Also, we had managed, somehow, to get into town a little while before everyone else did, so were able to see a few things before we got down to the serious business of divesting ourselves of cash and melting our plastic.

One thing stood out head and shoulders above everything else, for me, at least. The local War memorial was possibly the best cared for and clean that I've had the pleasure to see in many a day. In a day and age where these are vandalised by mindless young gits, or robbed of their plaques by thieving scum who aren't even fit to scrape the shoes of our veterans, it was heartening to see such care given to such an important memorial. Long may it last. Well done, Newbury.

Sadly for me, that was the peaceful highlight of the day. We traipsed from one stall to the next in the market square, and then from one shop to the other, in search of those items that we couldn't get online, or for which inspiration had completely avoided us all year. In between sojourns into the freezing bleeping cold, we ducked and dived between the increasing masses that had come out to play Murderwalk, as we tried, reasonably successfully, to not tread on the feet of, bowl over, run over, ram into, slam into, back into, or otherwise collide with, crash into, or cause compound fractures to, bawling toddlers, screaming kids, angry teenagers, stubborn Mums and Dads, and pee'd-off pensioners, not to mention the occasional local coppers who'd come out to witness this, the hunter-gatherers of the public, behaving like spoiled and short-tempered stampeding oxen.

By eleven a.m., my hips hurt, my knees ached, and my feet were killing me. I must have walked about five hundred miles back and forth around the town centre, and I was in desperate need of a toilet, a coffee, and a snack, in that very order.

And lo!, my heart and spirits rose, as there before me appeared in my sights a branch of Caffé Nero, fitting the bill right there and then.

The queue was almost out the door, of course, and could we find a pair of bloody seats? Yeah, right. Pick a winning lotto number, me bucko.

Well, we eventually got our coffees and snacks, found a pair of seats which the better half snagged as I found the queue to the toilets. Returning to the corner table, I noticed that the place offered free WiFi, so out came the phone for a bit of online shopping for the couple of things we couldn't get in town, to find that one had to register with The Cloud in order to benefit from the free WiFi. No problem there, thinks I, makes sense for them to outsource this facility, so I try to register. Yeah, you guessed it. No joy. The attempts (five of them) to register ended each time with a 'time out' non-response from the server, which either meant that it wasn't fit for purpose, or, more likely, had been deluged with registration requests on Murderwalk Day.

So, I gave up on the WiFi, and used my three-and-a-half G connection (that's HSDPA, in case you were wondering), and ordered a couple of items through Amazon. Well, at least that was painless enough.

And that was that; we'd risen early, got ourselves into town, avoided rending anyone to pieces, and reasonably successfully shopped both in person, and online. And avoided having to go into bleedin' Reading, to boot. Now, to get back home to the better half's place.


I'd lost the sodding return tickets.

Sometimes, you just can't bloody win, you know?

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